That Time I Bombed: John Cullen and the sound of one man laughing

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      That Time I Bombed is where the Straight asks comedians about their life-changing shows, favourite comedy albums, and, a subject that any comedian will face at some point in their career, a time that they bombed on stage.

      Who are you

      My name is John Cullen. I’m a stand-up comedian from Vancouver, B.C., and I’ve been at it for six years. I’ve played the Just for Laughs festival twice, the Halifax Comedy Festival once, and have done a bunch of other stuff in between.

      First stand-up experience

      The first stand-up show I can remember was seeing my uncle, Chris Quigley, perform in Ontario. It was at a Yuk Yuk’s, but I have no idea which one.

      He’s been a pro comic for over 20 years and the first time I saw him live was when I was 18, so I had to be snuck into the club. I went with all of my cousins and it was amazing. He’s an incredibly animated and talented performer and there’s no question that I wouldn’t be doing stand-up were it not for him.

      Life-changing comedy show

      Jeremy Hotz, at the closing gala of the Vancouver Comedy Festival. I can’t remember what year, probably somewhere in the 2005 or 2006 range.

      It was at the Edgewater Casino and I can remember laughing so hard I got tired. By the end of the show, I legitimately couldn’t laugh any more. It had all completely left my body. His combination of amazing joke-writing and insanely good crowd-work made for an unbelievable show. He’s still one of my favorite comedians working today.

      Top three comedy specials/albums

      I’m gonna choose three albums from three different points in my life. I’m not sure if they’re the funniest, but they’re definitely the ones that have shaped me over time.

      The first was Adam Sandler’s They’re All Gonna Laugh At You!. Me and some friends listened to this repeatedly in elementary school and it was probably my first introduction to comedy that wasn’t a throwaway one-liner in Cool Runnings.

      Second is Mitch Hedberg’s Mitch All Together. Mitch is my favorite comedian of all-time, which is funny because I don’t do any one-liners in my act at all. I got turned on to Mitch in university, and I can’t think of another comedy album or special I’ve listened to more. I could turn it on right this second and still laugh a bunch, even though I know most of the jokes by heart.

      My most recent favorite comedy album is by Nate Bargatze and it’s called Full Time Magic. I think most people would refer to me as a “storytelling comedian”, and for my money, Nate and Mike Birbiglia are the two best at that.

      Nate’s a guy some people may not be as familiar with, but his calm demeanor and Southern charm really add to his unbelievable knack for telling a good story.

      All-time favourite joke or bit

      Mitch Hedberg: “I was at this casino, minding my own business, when this guy came up to me and told me I would have to move, that I was blocking a fire exit. As though if there was a fire, I wasn’t going to run. If you are flammable and have legs, you are never blocking a fire exit.”

      Something you saw that made you laugh but probably shouldn’t have

      I’m a high school teacher, and there are so many things that make me laugh every day that I should probably never laugh at because, you know, it’s my job.

      Probably one of the funniest things I can think of was I was marking an English test and the question was, “What is it called when the author makes plot twists in the story that don’t really connect to the purpose of the story?” and the student answered, “M. Night Shyamalan”.

      I mean, that’s horribly wrong, but I marked it right because it’s probably the funniest test answer I’ve ever seen.

      That time I bombed

      I’ve certainly bombed plenty, but a lot of the time, bombing is as much a product of the environment and the way the show is set up as it is your actual performance or ability. The perfect storm of a terrible scenario for stand-up happened to me about a year ago.

      I was asked to perform at the retirement party for a friend of mine. He had been to a few of my shows and his company thought it would be a nice surprise to have me perform at his retirement party. Let me say this to all prospective comedian employers: comedy should never be a “surprise”.

      It sounds lovely in theory, but in practice, having everyone at a work function and then saying, “Surprise! Shut the hell up and listen to this guy for 30 minutes!” never goes well. At least if the audience knows going in there’s going to be a comedian, they can prepare for part of the night where they’ll be tuned in to a show.

      So I show up to the retirement and it turns out that there’s no seating. The room is set up with high-top tables for people to stand at and mill about, and that’s it. I understand this isn’t a proper comedy show, but trying to perform while people are thinking about how they wish high heels were never invented isn’t ideal. There’s a reason theatres have seats and it’s because people don’t hate themselves enough to stand during an entire play.

      Then the speeches start. And they continue. And continue. And continue, for about an hour. And then finally, the guest of honour goes up to speak, and I’m informed that I’ll be going after him. Because as everyone knows, once they give out the Best Picture at the Oscars, they bring the host back out to do 30 minutes of comedy.

      And this guy is no slouch either. He’s absolutely hilarious, slinging jokes left and right, the types of inside jokes with his peers I could never hope to make. Oh, and he’s also an accomplished singer. So he sings! And not only does he sing, he sings a hilarious song he has written for this special occasion, and people are laughing and crying. And after about a half-hour, he cedes the microphone… to me.

      The microphone is attached to a podium. Nothing funny has ever been said at a podium. In addition, he and his family are standing onstage with me. He was standing there the whole time while people were giving their speeches, so it seemed appropriate to do the same for me. So now he’s forced to laugh because everyone else is watching him and me, and it feels wrong not to laugh. Except he’s the only one laughing.

      I’m bombing so hard I can feel the earth rotating underneath my feet and my old friend, loyal to the end, is standing beside me, laughing alone. Is the sound of one person politely laughing worse than silence? How about when you are the “gift” from his company for his retirement?

      I did my 30 minutes, apologized profusely for ruining a half-hour of this wonderful man’s retirement party, and then wondered how much it would cost to send the company the plaque they should’ve given him.

      John Cullen was recently in Montreal doing a taping for Just For Laughs. Watch for him on TV next year, as his performances from both the Just for Laughs and Halifax Comedy Fest will be airing in early 2017. Catch him live in Vancouver at Yuk Yuk's Comedy Club (2837 Cambie Street) from August 19 to 20.

      You can listen to John Cullen on the podcast Real Good Show, which he co-hosts with broadcaster/radio man Justin Morissette and writer Stefan Heck.

      Visit John's website for show updates and follow him on Twitter.